I have always wanted to visit Stratford, Ontario, and to immerse myself in cultural experiences that the town is known for. As an art student in Toronto, I pictured myself sitting in a café with friends, arguing about the artistic direction of a play we had just seen at the Stratford Festival. Sadly, budget and curriculum restrictions thwarted my plans.
A couple decades later, I am the editor of a travel blog for a train company that stops in the town. Someone needed to spend a weekend figuring out the best things to do in Stratford, and I selflessly volunteered. A mere 20 years later, I was finally going to see if the town lived up to my expectations.
Founded almost 200 years ago, Stratford was on the decline in the mid-1900s when a man with a vision reinvented the town. Tom Patterson, World War II veteran and Stratford-born journalist, felt that his hometown was made for a Shakespearean theatre festival (yes, his vision was that specific!). In 1953, with the backing of the Mayor, town council and some enthusiastic citizens, it came to be. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (now the Stratford Festival) was born, and along with it, a new cultural hub.
Not Your Small Town Fare
My first morning in Stratford I pored over the map and realised just how cozy (read: small) the town was. With only a handful of commercial streets, the rush to see it all was lifted. The morning began at the very central Revel café. Packed with locals chatting, sipping and comparing babies, it’s a good place to start. When you go, make sure to pair your coffee with a croissant – one of the best I’ve had in years.
Chatting away with one of the employees, I asked for dinner recommendations. “You’ve got to go to Red Rabbit,” she says pointing to one of the restaurant’s Chefs, who was sipping on a coffee in the corner. “It’s one of the best restaurants here [it was!], and locals love it [they do!].”
The previous night, we sauntered into Mercer, right on the main drag. I’m usually skeptical of restaurants in the downtown core, fearing tourist traps, but my worries were assuaged the by fact that locals made up the bulk of the clientele. If you go, do yourself a favour and have the Smoked Mcintosh farms summer sausage and vegetable pancake. It’s a huge, it’s indulgent, it’s topped with thinly-sliced sausage and I paired it with a cherry beer. ‘Nuff said.
Walk the Streets
One of the best things about Stratford is its walkability. Given its small size, we were able to wander around the entirety of the commercial part of the town more than once, with some excursions into more residential areas both north and south.
Start at the Shakespearean Gardens, a small and pretty park in honour of the bard whose plays changed the town. Make your way up to one-block York street, packed with antique shops, coffee, tea and tchotchkes galore. From there, if you feeling like a nature walk, head north east to the river-side path. Or, if more shopping is your thing, make your way to Ontario street (and to Watson’s Chelsea Bazar , where the best deals are in the basement!), Erie street (to Mortingale Vintage for select pre-loved gems) or Downie street (for the burgers). And while you’re at it, how about a cut at The Green Hair Spa? I’m 99% sure they’re referring to their environmental practices, but I’m also kind of hoping they’re not!
If you’re an avid rambler, you’ll discover the handful of alleys with bold, graphic painted murals honouring local talent and celebrity visitors. To get started, check out Allen’s Alley, off of Wellington street. The other alleys don’t have signage, so you’ll have to discover them on your own, which is half the fun.
What to See at the Festival
The Stratford Festival runs from June – October, and has branched out from solely Shakespearean theatre. During our weekend, The Changeling, written by contemporaries of Shakespeare, was our favourite. The set design was smart, simple and effective, and the acting was pointed and strong – it’s not easy to be transported by Elizabethan English, but we were.
If you’re looking for spacious, apartment-style accommodations that will give you house envy, the very central The Suites at 95 Ontario will not disappoint. For something retro-cool (record player, guitar and board games in the room), you’re in for a treat at The Welly lofts.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that one Mr. Justin Bieber debuted in his hometown of Stratford before rocketing to teenage-dream stardom. If you happen to be visiting with some young fans, you’ll win major points by following the Bieber-iffic Map (and if you do, please tell me how it was!)